Charlie knocks on the door at 5am. Bastard! It’s the first of cold autumn mornings and I’m desperate to snuggle down till the last possible moment. I stumble to the front door. ‘Af pas five, the bus is going’, he says, cheekily smiling, pointing to his watch and shaking a set of keys. For a fraction of a second I wonder if I am going to regret my Sagittarian propensity for one up-manship, hare-brainedness and boy-scoutism that’s got me going on Charlie’s annual chestnut and fig picking trip to Orange.
Charlie’s my across-the-road neighbour (his name’s Carmine, but everyone, his wife and kids-in-law included, calls him Charlie). Over the last couple of years, we’ve swapped home grown or foraged produce – loaves of bread appear out of the boot of his car; I offer shoulders of pigs I’ve slaughtered in my back yard, we swap respective chilies. Over the course of exchanges, I’d learned that, since retirement, he’s taken to organizing annual fruit picking bus trips for the Mediterranean communities around Petersham, our inner-West Sydney suburb. This isn’t seasonal labour; it’s a deal where you pay low prices for fruit you harvest yourself. For the consumers, it’s a good day out and a chance to buy in bulk in season. For the orchardists, it’s a way to sell some produce without having to pay the overheads for storage and haulage to the Sydney markets. By the time I’d seen it this year’s trip advertised in the local Portuguese deli, it was fully booked; but a few more inquiries came in and Charlie put on a second, smaller bus.
Which is what I find myself hunching into at 5.30am precisely. All the double seats are taken, which puts paid to my romantic notion of sitting next to some ethnic and delving for bijoux anecdotes with which to salt my post trip narrations. As we climb on, we try to make each other out in the anemic wash of the cabin light. ‘Are you Portuguesa?’ ‘No, I am Siciliano.’ ‘I Italiano’. ‘Maltesa’. Suddenly I am struck by the small irony of a Sri Lankan heading off on a genial chestnut picking with descendants of those whose fellow countrymen were the first Europeans to invade Sri Lanka, the Portuguese who headed there to break the Arab stranglehold on the spice trade in the late 15th century and stayed there combatively for a century and a half. But it seems here only I am aware of the violence of this history. When later at breakfast someone asks if I am Portuguese and I reply that I am Sri Lankan there is no apparent connection made. When I do get around to talking about the Portuguese influence in Sri Lanka with Maria, sitting in front of me, we talk about sweets and cakes, the Portuguese cuisine influence most Sri Lankan’s would point to, forgetting, as do most people, that the single most influential import by the Portuguese to their South Asian trading posts was the chili. But even here we are a little at cross-purposes as the cakes I mention – bolo de coco (coconut cake) and bolo fiado – mean nothing to her.
But that discussion is yet to come. Right now, I can hear the crackle of a poorly received sports commentary coming from a black portable transistor radio circa 1965, broadcasting a soccer match between Portugal and some country whose name I never quite get. From time to time a roar is heard and the Italians in the back yell ‘Goal’. The Portuguese grumpily respond ‘No, no goal!’ I guess we aren’t winning.
One of the Portuguese women, a newby like me, has brought a tall and narrow blue plastic container. ‘For the figs,’ she says, ‘because no good to smash them.’ Someone more experienced shows off the thick gardening gloves she’s brought, and the image rises of the spiked shell of the chestnut waiting its encounter with my naked palms. A thermos of coffee spills and we all moan intoxicatedly. It’s then it occurs to me that the substantial packs and bags others have brought are not, as I had thought, packed with parkas or wet weather gear for the uncertainties of the weather across the Great Divide, but with food. When I asked Charlie if I should bring anything, like lunch, drink, a bag for the chestnuts, he had vaguely indicated that (a) we would stop somewhere so I could buy food and (b) the orchardists would have all the collecting gear I need. My stomach grumbles a curse at Charlie for leaving me desolately unprepared, and my hands crimp defensively against the coming pain.
At Lapstone, as we begin the climb into the Blue Mountains, the woman behind me calls out ‘Sunrise, sunrise’, and we all look out the window at a perfectly orange ball that is drifting upward, gilding the sprawl of the suburbs that break in waves at the base of the Mountains. Any minute now someone will start singing, I think, one of those shepherd-awake-look-where-dawn-in-russet-mantle-treads sort of chants in an obscure mode. No such luck; disappointed, it’s back to sleep for me.
I wake as we careen down Victoria Pass and onto the beginning of the Western plains. Okay, maybe not careen; but things can seem awfully fast when you wake out of sleep to find yourself at a precipitate angle, swaying from side to side on a perilous perch, in a strange vehicle you don’t appear to be in control of. We come to a welcome halt at a large roadhouse ‘to change water’ (as one woman will continue to say every time we make a toilet stop. It’s a noteworthy sociological phenomenon that the women talk all the time on the way there and back, the men only on the way back, vocal chords lubricated by their wet lunch). I buy and scoff down a miserable bacon and egg roll and a cup of instant over-milky coffee (I’d asked for a strong flat white with the groundless expectation that the waitress might actually get it from the espresso machine on the counter). Next to me, a group are mugging down steaming black coffee, some with a nip of grappa, and casually pulling apart and chewing slabs of home-baked Portuguese Easter Bread. The bus driver (‘my name is Salvatori, but you can all call me Sal, or just S’) asks me how the coffee is. ‘Terrible’, I tell him. ‘In Napoli’, he says, ‘we say it’s only good for washing the balls’, demonstrating the action on his crutch. It’s another chance for someone to break into an early-morning-going-chestnut-harvesting-but-we-really-mean-deflowering-milk-maids number. The opportunity is passed up for the chance the get on the mobile phone and chat with loved ones no doubt just pushing back the duvet and wiping sleep from eyes. Lucky bastards! There’s a strong chance the trip is heading for dismal.
Back on the bus, a discussion starts about what chestnuts are called in the different tongues. To me, they’re chestnuts, English being my sole language, and my earliest encounters with them being from the Jack and Jill comics I used to read as a child in Sri Lanka. For the Portuguesa they are castanha, for the Italians, castagna. Which sets me thinking about the word castanets and whether they are related. A later search on the web shows they are, as is the Spanish word for chestnut – castaña. All derive from the Latin castanea, which means, yep, chestnut. I learn that castanets are made from hardwoods, but we’re talking oak, pomegranate, granadillo – no mention of chestnut. I hazard the thought that if you look at one of a set of castanets you could fancy its shape to be like an unpeeled chestnut, only flatter and rounder. Then again, it looks as much like a scallop shell, from which they also have apparently been made in the past.
We pass through Orange (‘Why they call it Orange and no oranges?’ our ‘change-water’ lady asks. I refrain from telling her that the Council has chosen ‘Australia’s Colour City’ as its motto. Truly.) and head to Mullion Creek. As we near the intended orchard I can see, through bordering bush, rows of trees that for lack of a significant possibility of being anything else I decide must be chestnuts. They’re in what I guess you’d call the home paddock, though here it also seems to be the only paddock. What looks like the original forest still butts up against the barbed wire fence; grey, aged bushies quarantining these suspiciously green migrants. We stop at the inevitable picturesque corrugated tin shed though this one is still a working shed. Taking up a quarter of the space is a large machine made of a long barrel punched with different size holes sitting above a set of mesh bins – the chestnut grader. Against the far wall, results of its labouring are ranged on long tables, one with a set of scales, another with boxes of chestnuts graded and ready for sale to those not suckered on the rusticity of picking their own. A sign advertises $5 a kilo if you gather your own, which is $1.50 cheaper than the price of the smallest grade of ready-picked on sale at the table. We grab buckets from a stack nearby and head for the orchard.
At the gateway is a chestnut tree that’s been let grow un-pruned over years, and I understand why it was Longfellow’s village smithy set up shop under one; it’s a massive thick green dome of leaves spangled like a Lord Mayoral Christmas tree with the lighter green star-burst pods of young chestnuts. In the orchard, the trees are tamed to a manageable width and height and marshaled in rows. Between the rows emptied shells have been raked into long low piles; good compost, I speculate, but fail later to ask for a bag. Under the trees themselves is a dishevelment of empty shells, pursed lipped shells offering glimpses of the red brown nuts inside, tight lipped shells miserly as oysters of their pearl, and here and there green young uns that have been a tad too eager to cast their fate to the wind.
Why hadn’t it occurred to me before that you can’t of course pick chestnuts, you gather them. The pods are manageable when green, their spines pliable. But as the seeds ripen, the pod browns and dries until it would give a hedgehog a run for its money in the spike stakes. If you’re lucky, the pod will open while still on the tree and pop the nuts out and onto the ground to be gathered easily. You can then work your way quickly from tree to tree. If you’re not lucky, or if you’re obsessive about getting every one of the buggers under the tree, then you don’t so much gather the chestnuts as harass them. You approach them and give them a little kick to see if the pod’s open at all. If it is, then you put one foot (boot that is, there is no way you want to put a naked foot on a chestnut pod) on either side of the slit and sort of push the skin off. If it isn’t you can try a little more vigorous rubbing with the boot, and if that fails then it’s a short sharp stamp that cracks the pod into little shards. Hopefully by now, your nuts have rolled or fallen out of the pod. If not, time to give the pod another little kick to try and dislodge them. When this fails, there’s nothing for it but to attack the pod with your fingers in the time honoured grasp-the-nettle approach – a short sharp prick supposedly will hurt less for a shorter time.
Of course if you have been chestnutting in the old country since you were in whatever passed for diapers in your village, you will also have brought or found a sturdy stick with which to whack the buggers, and you may even have got as technologically advanced as to have brought some thick canvas gardening gloves. The stick is also useful for knocking down the green young uns clinging to their twigs for dear life. An orchard hand hangs around a few rows away, seemingly uncertain whether to challenge the stick-wielders on this flagrant gazumping of the crop.
Marie tells me later that she will boil the young ones and roast the old ones. I see someone eating one raw, peeling away the translucent stripey-orangey-brown skin that films the young seed and biting into it. I try one; it’s like eating into a particularly touch raw potato texture-wise, and tastes slightly astringent, not sweet like the old (ripe?) nut. It’s not an alternative to eating a nicely roasted or pureed one, as, say, green almonds are vis-à-vis the ripe nut, but it’s pleasant enough as a snack. That’s about as much of an advance as I get all day on what to do with chestnuts.
So it goes. Bending, stamping, worrying, tree to tree, with no sound but the susurration of conversation of fellow gatherers, a thwack and rustle as a stick finds its mark, or the satisfying plop as another ripe fruit takes a gamble for the future of the species and hurtles to earth. Some back strained time later I find I’ve got one full bucket. I look up and notice there’s only a few fellow gatherers nearby. I can see more sitting in chairs up near the shed and what looks like a line of others waiting for a weigh-in. I check the time; I’ve been out here an hour and a half, and it feels like a matter of minutes. I join the weigh-in line. Comes my turn and I find I’ve harassed my way to 7 kilos. Just how many chestnuts that is doesn’t hit till I’m back home and looking at a whole kitchen storage drawerful of the buggers. Two days later, my friend Maria, not the bus one, a Greek fellow foodie, phones to offer me a kilo of chestnuts from her trees at Mt Wilson. I can’t say no. I feel like Scrat, the squirrel from the Disney cartoon Ice Age, only I don’t have his excuse for storing this many nuts. Maria offers me hope; she says I can boil them, skin them and then freeze the flesh for years. And Nanda, my Sicilian sis-in-law says she’ll take a couple of kilos off my hands and suggests there’s always the alternative of litres of soup.
But this, too, is in the future as I clamber back into the bus, grinning gormlessly and rehearsing the story I will tell of my adventure. A couple of the men have jumped the fence, safe from view of the shed, and snapped off low thin branches from nearby chestnut trees; the intent is clearly to try and strike them back in their home yards. I am tickled by this flagrant vandalism. There is much inconclusive discussion as to whether and how the twigs will take root in the salt air of the beachside suburb of Maroubra which is where at least one of them will be struck.
We head off back into Orange and out the other side to Borenore and the Norland fig orchard. We’ve arrived toward the end of the second harvest of black genoas. While the rest pile out and hoe into their lunch, I wander into the orchard and spend a happy half hour eating way too many figs and picking even more. And at last – music! One of the Portuguese men has brought an accordion along and is playing it with fierce concentration. A trio of women get up and do the kind of shuffling, scuffing heels, hands-on- hips-then-tossed-in-the-air, clapping sort of dance that you know would look embarrassingly folkloric were they dressed in some Portuguese equivalent of a dirndl and head scarf. But here, today, in this drought dusty farmyard, at these scraggly picnic benches, over the remains of chicken and rice and grappa, with the family kelpie whining to join in the fiesta, in a mid autumn afternoon, and with a brown and gold life-sized plaster allosaurus as backdrop (no, really) it’s more joyously sublime than I ever could have hoped for.